Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Destructionism of the Literati - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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3: The Destructionism of the Literati - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Destructionism of the Literati
The romantic and the social art of the nineteenth century have prepared the way for socialist destructionism. Without the help it got from this direction Socialism would never have gained its hold on people’s minds.
Romanticism is man’s revolt against reason, as well as against the condition under which nature has compelled him to live. The romantic is a daydreamer; he easily manages in imagination to disregard the laws of logic and of nature. The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work; he produces in order to improve his position. The romantic is too weak—too neurasthenic—for work; he imagines the pleasures of success but he does nothing to achieve them. He does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination. He has a grudge against reality because it is not like the dream world he has created. He hates work, economy, and reason.
The romantic takes all the gifts of a social civilization for granted and desires, in addition, everything fine and beatiful that, as he thinks, distant times and countries had or have to offer. Surrounded by the comforts of European town life he longs to be an Indian rajah, Bedouin, corsair, or troubadour. But he sees only that portion of these people’s lives which seems pleasant to him, never their lack of the things he obtains in such abundance. His horsemen gallop over the plains on fiery steeds, his corsairs capture beautiful women, his knights vanquish their enemies between episodes of love and song. The perilous nature of their existence, the comparative poverty of their circumstances, their miseries and their toils—these things his imagination tactfully overlooks: all is transfigured by a rosy gleam. Compared with this dream ideal, reality appears arid and shallow. There are obstacles to overcome which do not exist in the dream. There are very different tasks to be undertaken. Here are no beautiful women to be rescued from the hands of robbers, no lost treasures to be found, no dragons to kill. Here there is work to do, ceaselessly, assiduously, day after day, year after year. Here one must plough and sow if one wishes to reap. The romantic does not choose to admit all this. Obstinate as a child, he refuses to recognize it. He mocks and jeers; he despises and loathes the bourgeois.
The spread of capitalist thought produced an attitude of mind unfriendly to Romanticism. The poetic figures of knights and pirates become objects of mirth. Now that the lives of Bedouins, maharajahs, pirates, and other romantic heroes had been observed at close quarters, any desire to emulate them vanished. The achievements of the capitalist social order made it good to be alive and there was a growing feeling that security of life and liberty, peaceful welfare, and richer satisfaction of wants could be expected only from Capitalism. The romantic contempt for what is bourgeois fell into disrepute.
But the mental attitude from which Romanticism sprang was not so easy to eradicate. The neurasthenic protest against life sought other forms of expression. it found it in the “social” art of the nineteenth century.
The really great poets and novelists of the period were not social-political propagandist writers. Flaubert, Maupassant, Jacobsen, Strindberg, Konrad Ferdinand Meyer, to name only a few, were far from being followers of the fashionable literature. We do not owe the statement of these social and political problems to the writers whose works have given the nineteenth century its lasting place in the history of literature. This was the task assumed by second- or third-rate writers. It was writers of this class who introduced as literary figures the bloodsucking capitalist entrepreneur and the noble proletarian. To them the rich man is in the wrong because he is rich, and the poor in the right because he is poor.4 “But this is just as if wealth were a crime,” Gerhart Hauptmann makes Frau Dreissiger exclaim in Die Weber. The literature of this period is full of the condemnation of property.
This is not the place for an aesthetic analysis of these works; our task is to examine their political efforts. They have brought victory to Socialism by enlisting the allegiance of the educated classes. By means of such books Socialism has been carried into the houses of the wealthy, captivating the wives and daughters and causing the sons to turn away from the family business until at last the capitalist entrepreneur himself has begun to believe in the baseness of his activities. Bankers, captains of industry, and merchants have filled the boxes of theatres in which plays of a socialist tendency were given before enthusiastic audiences.
Social art is tendentious art: all social literature has a thesis to demonstrate.5 It is ever the same thesis: Capitalism is an evil, Socialism is salvation. That such eternal repetition has not led to boredom sooner must be attributed solely to the fact that the various writers have had different forms of Socialism in mind. But they all follow Marx’s example in avoiding detailed exposition of the socialist social order they praise; most of them merely indicate by allusion, though clearly enough, that they desire a socialist order. That the logic of their argument is inadequate and that the conclusions are driven home by an appeal to the emotions rather than to reason is hardly surprising, seeing that the same method is followed by soi-disant scientific authorities on Socialism. Fiction is a favoured vehicle for this kind of procedure, as there is little fear that anyone will try to refute its assertions in detail by logical criticism. It is not the custom to inquire into the accuracy of particular remarks in novels and plays. Even if it were, the author could still find a way out by denying responsibility for the particular words put into the mouth of a hero. The conclusions forced home by character-drawing cannot be invalidated by logic. Even if the “man of property” is always depicted as bad through and through, one cannot reproach the author on account of a simple example. For the total effect of the literature of his time no single writer is responsible.
In Hard Times Dickens puts into the mouth of Sissy Jupe, the deserted little daughter of a circus clown and dancer, remarks designed to shatter Utilitarianism and Liberalism. He makes Mr. M’Choackumchild, teacher in the model school of the Benthamite capitalist Gradgrind, ask how great is the percentage of victims when, out of 100,000 sea travellers, 500 are drowned. The good child answers, that for the relatives and friends of the victims there is no percentage—and so condemns with quiet simplicity the self-complacency of Manchesterism. Leaving aside the far-fetched improbability of the scene, this is of course all very fine and touching. But it does not diminish the satisfaction which members of a capitalist community may feel when they contemplate the great reduction of the dangers of navigation under Capitalism. And if Capitalism has so contrived that out of 1,000,000 people only twenty-five starve each year, while under more ancient economic systems a much greater proportion starved, then our estimation of this achievement is not impaired by Sissy’s platitude, that for those who starve the ordeal is just as bitter when a million or a million million others are starving at the same time or not. Moreover, we are offered no proof that in a socialist society fewer people would starve. The third observation which Dickens puts into Sissy’s mouth is intended to show that one cannot judge the economic prosperity of a nation by the amount of its wealth, but one must consider also the distribution of that wealth. Dickens was too ignorant of the writings of the utilitarians to know that these views did not contradict the older utilitarianism. Bentham, particularly, maintained with special emphasis that a sum of wealth brings more happiness when it is evenly distributed than when it is so distributed as to endow some richly while others have little.6
Sissy’s counterpart is the model boy, Bitzer. He gets his mother into the workhouse and then contents himself with giving her half a pound of tea once a year. Even this, says Dickens, is a weakness in the otherwise admirable youth, whom he calls an excellent young economist. For one thing, all almsgiving inevitably tends to pauperize the recipient. Further, Bitzer’s only rational action with regard to tea would have been to buy as cheaply, and sell it as dearly as possible. Have not philosophers demonstrated that in this consists the whole duty of man (the whole, not a part of his duty)? Millions who have read these observations have felt the indignation for the baseness of utilitarian thought which the author meant them to feel. Nevertheless, they are quite unjust. It is true that liberal politicians have striven against the encouragement of beggars by means of indiscriminate almsgiving and have shown the futility of any attempt at bettering the situation of the poor which does not proceed by increasing the productivity of labour. They have exposed the danger to the proletarians themselves of proposals for increasing the birth rate by premature marriages between persons not in a position to take care of their children. But they have never protested against support through the Poor Law of people unable to work. Neither have they contested the moral duty of children to support their parents in old age. The liberal social philosophy has never said that it was a “duty,” let alone the beginning and end of morality, to buy as cheaply as possible and sell as dearly as possible. It has shown that this is the rational behaviour for the individual seeking (by buying and selling) the means for the indirect satisfaction of his wants. But Liberalism has no more called it irrational to give tea to one’s aged mother than it has called tea drinking in itself irrational.
One glance into the works of the utilitarians is enough to unmask these sophistical distortions. But there is hardly one in every hundred thousand readers of Dickens who has ever read a line of a utilitarian writer. Dickens, with other romantics less gifted as storytellers but following the same tendencies, has taught millions to hate Liberalism and Capitalism. And yet Dickens was not an open and direct champion of destructionism, any more than were William Morris, Shaw, Wells, Zola, Anatole France, Gerhart Hauptmann, Edmondo de Amicis, and many others. They all reject the capitalist social order and combat private ownership in the means of production, without perhaps always being conscious of it. Between the lines they suggest an inspiring picture of a better state of affairs economically and socially. They are recruiting agents for Socialism and, since Socialism must destroy society, are at the same time paving the way for destructionism. But just as political Socialism became finally, in Bolshevism, an open avowal of destructionism, so too did literary Socialism. Tolstoy is the great prophet of a destructionism that goes back to the words of the Gospels. He makes the teachings of Christ, which rested on a belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent, a gospel for all times and all men. Like the communist sects of the Middle Ages and the Reformation he tries to build society on the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. He does not of course go so far as to take literally the exhortation to follow the example of the lilies of the field, which toil not. But in his idea of society there is only room for self-sufficing agriculturists who, with modest means, till a small piece of land, and he is logical enough to demand that everything else shall be destroyed.
And now the peoples which have hailed with the greatest enthusiasm such writings, which call for the destruction of all cultural values, are themselves on the verge of a great social catastrophe.
The Methods of Destructionism
[4. ]Cazamian, Le roman social en Angleterre, 1830-50 (Paris, 1904), pp. 267 ff.
[5. ]On the socialist tendency in painting see Muther, Geschichte der Malerei im 19. Jahrhundert (Munich, 1893), Vol. II. pp. 186 ff.; Coulin, Die sozialistische Weltanschauung in der franzöisischen Malerei (Leipzig, 1909), pp. 85 ff.
[6. ]Bentham, Principles of the Civil Code, pp. 304 ff.